So here I am in Cairo. One of the big issues I plan to look here at is this much-reported-on polarization of attitudes between the Shiites and Sunnis of the Middle East.
Abu Aardvark and Badger are two of the people who have done the most to give us the details of how this relatively new polarization has been spreading almost “virally” throughout much of the Arab world. (There is also some very deadly Shiite-Sunni tension in Pakistan, that is more of a long-running thing; and a certain amount of it historically in Afghanistan, too. But I think the dynamics there might be a bit different? Anyway, I don’t feel qualified to comment on those phenomena. The Middle East alone is quite hard enough to fathom and explain.)
What is frequently described as a Shiite-Sunni “polarization” in today’s Arab world is, in fact, more like a tsunami of anti-Shiite agitation, propagandizing, and also apparently real sentiment that has been sweeping many Sunni-dominated Arab socieies. One of the first things to note is how incredibly fast this tsunami has gathered its force. I mean, it was only last September that we were hearing about the vendors in Cairo’s (deeply Sunni) street-markets naming the choicest among their special Eid baskets of dates after Hizbullah head Sayed Hassan Nasrallah… But here we are today, a bare 4-5 months later, and rumors– never yet substantiated!– of widespread and scary Shiite campaigns to convert Sunnis, and other nefarious plots that are all somehow Shiite-related seem to be sweeping through Egypt and other Sunni Arab communities like wildfire.
So one of the things that I want to do while I’m here is to really probe what’s been happening. And also, to survey the possible future directions in which this sign of sectarian fitna (complete social breakdown) might go.
It seems evident that the whole series of episodes that surrounded the execution of Saddam (and his half brother) at year’s end did a lot to catalyze and/or exacerbate this tsunami of anti-Shiite feeling among many Sunnis… But that is certainly not all that has been afoot. Other very relevant factors include the fact that after three-years-plus of increasingly sectarian carnage in Iraq, the nerves and sensibilities of nearly everyone in the Arab world are very raw. At this level, it doesn’t even “help” the argument much to note that the greatest number by far of casualties from sectarian violence there have been Shiites– those thousands of Iraqi Shiites who have been killed over the past three-plus years by acts of anti-civilian violence of almost mind-numbing callousness… Bombs in markets, bombs in mosques, bombs at religious festivals, etc etc.
And yes, there has also been some extremely callous counter-violence against Iraqi Sunnis. The torture chambers, the mass arrest campaigns, the hundreds of mutilated bodies of Sunni men tossed out on the roadside… But in addition to the hurt from that violence there is also, probably, for many Iraqi Sunnis a broader sense of a stark new vulnerability. From having been valued members of (for many of them) a relatively well-cared-for and well-educated elite– and lauded by many of their fellow Arabs for their role as a bulwark against Iran– most of Iraq’s Sunnis were reduced within a few short months to being members of an extremely vulnerable minority in their own country. That kind of rapid downward mobility can easily– as in post-1919 Germany– be a ready incubator for hate-fueled or even genocidal ideologies…
And in another corner of the Arab world we have Lebanon, where the “national unity” of last summer turned very rapidly– and with the determined help of the Americans– into a sullen form of Shiite-Sunni jousting for power. In Lebanon, too, as in Iraq, the Sunnis have been faced with having to give up a social and political ascendancy over the Shiites (though notably never, in Lebanon, over the Christians) that dated back to the days of the– determinedly Sunni– Ottoman Empire. In a sense, I suppose you could say that what is happening in both Lebanon and Iraq is a last-stage crumbling away of some last vestiges of the Ottoman-bequeathed social order…. And it hasn’t been a happy process for the Sunni communities of those two countries.
Add into this mix a few other complicating factors, too. Starting off with a powerful US-Israeli strategic axis in the region that (a) has projected a very powerful message that the use of force is quite okay in the modern era, while resisting and blocking nearly all the available channels for talking through differences rather than fighting over them, (b) has played a documented role in stoking the internal discord and violence in at least one very visible area: occupied Palestine, and (c) has showed itself openly eager to try to enrol the Sunni Arab regimes, and as much as possible of the Arab publics, in a coalition dedicated to confronting or rolling back the growth of Iran’s regional power. Which, by the way, is Shiite.
The complete smashing-up of the Iraqi state, which many other Arabs had in an earlier era seen as a bastion of the “Arab nation’s” defense against Iran, has certainly heightened all these sensitivities and fears. (Less so, I think, the Iranian nuclear program, though that has been the focus of most of the concern in the west. The Middle Eastern Arabs have, after all, lived for many decades now under the shadow of a local power that is nuclear-armed and has a record of hostile actions against them that is considerably lengthier than Iran’s.)
Then, too, have you seen how easily all these descriptions of the nature of this current crisis can slide between one based primarily on sect (Sunni and Shiite) and one based primarily on ethnicity (Arab and Iranian)? This is another complex aspect of the problem. And in this regard, once again, as in the early 1980s, the ultimate (or at least medium-term) allegiances of the ethnic-Arab Shiites who populate the northern reaches of the Arabian/Persian Gulf will prove key to the way the whole situation turns out.
When Saddam invaded Iran in September 1980, he and his people were betting (as some neocons do once again today) that they could rely on the anti-Persian sentiments of many of Iran’s non-Persian nationalities… Including crucially, the allegedly pro-Baghdad sentiments of those millions of ethnic Arabs who populate Iran’s Ahvaz region, to the east of the Shatt al-Arab. (Very productive oil territory, too.)
But it didn’t work. Back in the 1980s some combination of “national” (i.e. pan-Iranian) and sectarian (Shiite) allegiance proved strong enough to overcome any tendency the Ahvaz Arabs might have had towards ethnic solidarity with Baghdad. They didn’t rise against the mullahs’ regime in Teheran. And nor did any of the other peripheral ethnic minorities whom Saddam had been relying on.
This time around, a lot of what determines how the present threat of regionwide fitna turns out will hang on the outcome of a broadly similar clash of loyalties amongst the many millions of Shiites of southern Iraq— who are the close neighbors and sometimes cousins of their co-ethnics and Shiite co-sectarians right acorss the border. Over the coming months and years will they show their loyalties more to the Iraqi nation and their Arab ethnicity, or to their Shiite co-sectarians in Iran? (This is another take on the issue of the “battle of the narratives” inside Iraq that i wrote about a month ago, here.)
I’ll note a couple of things in this regard. The Iraqis Shiites may have “won” an unprecedented degree of political power, due to the US toppling of Saddam and the subsequent de-Baathification campaigns pursued under US auspices. But if political power was something they longed for for all these decades past, then the actual experience they have had of it in the past four years must have been extremely disappointing. Many of their communities have been ravaged by those hundreds of acts of enormous, anti-civilian savagery, and have lost any sense of public security. And meanwhile the “government” to which they were handed the keys was one that (1) had already been denuded of all the actual instruments of governance, and (2) continued to have its freedom of action circumscribed at every turn by the Americans… So they couldn’t even use the government to assure their own most basic security and wellbeing, let alone having tmuch wherewithal with which to reach out “generously” to their Sunni compatriots.
Also, we’ve seen generally lousy leadership from all strata of the political class in Iraq: Shiite, Sunni, or “nationalist”. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising, given the extent to which Saddam, Hussein had stripped the country of any ability to generate good and visionary successor leaders. He murdered scores of such individuals as they arose within the country! Tom Friedman has famously (and perhaps more than slightly accusingly) asked, “Where is the Arab Martin Luther King, Jr.?” I would say that more than that, what would be great would be an Arab Nelson Mandela: someone who could help unify his people around a clear and compelling political program, stick to it until victory, and then act with gracious magnanimity to the people who had thereby lost a degree of their earlier power.
(Mandela and the ANC achieved this, I should note, through a nuanced combination of main reliance on unarmed civilian mass action, supplemented by the actions of a relatively small but symbolically important armed wing. But mainly what strikes me about the ANC’s strength was its focus on organizing, organizing, organizing… and on an internal discipline that was honed over 82 years of nationalist struggle before they reached victory in 1994.)
The nearest that the Arab Shiites have to such a figure is Sayed Hassan Nasrallah. But I don’t think he yet has anything like the gravitas and wisdom of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. It would be great to see him reach out with some gestures of grand magnanimity to the many distressed Sunnis in the Arab world… Particularly, the distressed Sunnis of Iraq.
And then, talking of distressed Sunnis, we also of course have the Palestinians… whose duly elected parliamentary leaders of the Hamas movement have maintained good relations with Teheran. Now Hamas also has close ideological and organizational relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in both Egypt and Jordan. It must be a constant, looming concern for the Bushists that the harshness of the Israeli policies against Hamas that they in general strongly support might at any point tip the political balance in one or both of those key, overwhelmingly Sunni countries against their present pro-US rulers and in favor of the Muslim Brothers… So the anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian propaganda campaigns that these regimes in Cairo and Amman have been undertaking also seem to have the goal of trying to distract their peoples’ attention away from the crisis that continues to grip the Palestinians.
Where is this all headed? That’s one of the things I want to try to figure out more over over my two-plus-week visit here.
One general observation I’ll make is that these days, and perhaps especially in this region, history seems to be proceeding at a dizzyingly fast pace. Near the head of this (admittedly slightly rambly) post I noted the speed with which the present round of anti-Shiite agitation seems to have sunk some roots in Sunni Arab communities. But this trend could stop, or even be reversed, with just the same kind of speed. I have the distinct sense that the coming three to six months will be momentous for this whole region… And yes, I believe that will be the case even if (God willing!) the Bushists should finally decide not to launch any military attack against Iran.
But if they do take such a foolhardy and callous step, then the whole region might erupt in quite unpredictable ways.